Natural Dual-Mage by K F Breene, now you can read online.
“Why do I keep getting myself into these messes?” I ducked under a reaching branch and jumped over a fallen log. My feet pounded on the moist leaves as I sprinted down a wide pathway, zipping past the little painted doors and carefully written signs attached to the tree trunks. Soft afternoon light filtered through the heavy cloud cover overhead, lighting the deserted walking area.
Breathing heavily, I rounded a smooth trunk and paused, my hands out.
Somewhere on the other side of the narrow stream to my right, heavy boots crashed through the brush.
Somehow, she always got to patrol the safe areas, and I always ended up with a vicious creature chasing me through unfamiliar terrain. At least she wasn’t laughing or calling me a coward for running away this time. That was something.
“Did you see it?” she called out.
“Shhh!” I batted my hand through the air, not caring if she could see the gesture or not. My heart rattled against my ribcage.
Yeah, I had seen it. Sitting up on a branch and looking down at me. At first it had looked like a grumpy old man with a serious case of the uglies, but it had transformed into something vile—a goblin with red eyes, protruding teeth, and a clumpy rust-red hat. I’d felt its magic weave through the beautiful natural elements around me as it raised its eagle-like talons and prepared to jump down and rip me apart.
I’d seen it and done the logical thing: run like hell.
Sure, I had experience now. In the two months since Reagan, Emery, and I had defeated the Guild and their hired goons, I’d trained like a madwoman, taking almost everything Reagan and Emery could throw at me. I’d also let Reagan talk me into five bounty hunter gigs that Darius deemed safe enough.
Safe enough if your partner wasn’t a homicidal maniac.
Each time, she somehow managed to shove me into the line of fire. Then she’d take off, leaving me to essentially catch or kill the creature on my own. And each case had been harder than the last, with creatures the local Magical Law Enforcement (MLE) office either didn’t want to handle, or couldn’t.
I should’ve known better than to take this gig. Especially after the last one, where Reagan had led me into a dead-end alleyway, sprinted up a ladder, and proceeded to pull the ladder up and leave me for dead.
She’d thought it would build character. And while it had forced me to come up with pretty amazing spells so I wouldn’t die, it had also dropped her onto my people I should immediately cast out of my life list.
There was exactly one person on that list.
So why was I in the middle of Ireland, in the freezing cold, being chased through a children’s fairy village by a nasty goblin that killed people and then dipped its hat into their blood?
Because Ireland, that was why. Because I’d gotten a free trip to Ireland. Darius had even arranged a meeting of powerful potential allies around it, opting to meet in Northern Ireland rather than back in the States.
I was no longer sure any of it was worth it.
Palming my chest didn’t slow my rampaging heart.
“I quit!” I yelled, chancing a glance around the tree again.
“It can’t understand English,” Reagan called out, moving around to look through the brush lining the stream.
“Yeah, right. And brownies make good house helpers. Sure.”
“How was I supposed to know you’d piss off that brownie? I’d heard nothing but good things from the vampires.”
“Consider the source.” I looked up just in case the goblin had somehow hopped from branch to branch and now dangled above me, ready to pounce, rip a hole in my chest, and renew the crimson gloss on its disgusting hat. “I thought you said these things hang out near rocks.”
“They usually do. They like ruins and castles best, especially the ones with a history of mass bloodshed. They feed on the negative energy.”
“Then what’s it doing in a toy fairy village?” Seeing nothing above me but a lovely pink fairy door—about six inches tall, wooden, and decorated with little wooden flowers and beads—nailed into the tree’s trunk, I looked back again. A petite play well (I couldn’t think of any other term for it) partially blocked my view. Instead of water, fake gold poured from the bucket suspended from the roof by wire, and the mini-slanting roof, head height, was covered in fake grass they were pretending was moss.
It was very cute. In fact, the whole place was adorable. Colorful little fake fairy doors were clustered on the trunks or at the bases of stumps. Tiny little wooden mushrooms and clotheslines decorated stoops or fake patches of grass near the doors, trying to convince children that the fabled creatures lived there. They didn’t, of course. According to Reagan, real fairies were a few feet taller, lived in burrows like varmints, and liked to cause havoc.
I rubbed my hands together and blew. The hot air from my mouth cooled by the time it got through my half-numb fingers.
That was something I hadn’t counted on—doing magic with numb fingers. It wasn’t easy. Easier than trying it with gloves, though, so I had no choice but to risk frostbite.
“I have no idea,” Reagan said, looking around. “I mean, besides the obvious. Killing tourists and such.”
“I knew what you meant,” I murmured. The pictures of people with parts of their bodies torn out, faces ripped off, and limbs shredded flashed through my mind, turning my stomach. I’d gotten a little better about not upchucking when I saw (or created) carnage, but the truly gory stuff would always be hard to handle.
Freaking Ireland and its majesty. I blamed it for seducing me into coming and taking this God-awful job.
“It’s too still,” Reagan said in a low hum, shifting again. The rustle from her feet reached me from a hundred feet away.
Which meant the Redcap goblin wasn’t moving. Or else…
“These things don’t fly, right?” I whispered, looking upward again.
“What?” she shouted way too loudly.
“Shhhh!” I spun around, just in case it was sneaking up on me. A large stump bolstered a house made out of a tree limb, surrounded by little mushrooms, fountains, and seats, behind a sign that said “Queen Erica’s Weekend Retreat” in sparkly purple letters. Beyond, a string draped between two trees, the festive papers attached to it flapping in the light, though horribly cold breeze.
“How in Fairy Godmother’s underpants am I supposed to focus when there is so much cute going on around me?” I asked through clenched teeth, feeling a putrid sort of magic snake through the air.
“That’s exactly what I was thinking. Why do you think I took this side?” Reagan said, her hearing annoyingly great. I was pretty sure that was a side effect of bonding her elder vampire boyfriend.
“Cute, as in, I want to go around looking at all of it. Not try to battle a bloodsucking monster intent on killing me.” I brushed my hand against the trunk, collecting natural elements in an organized mass above me, ready to form them into a spell.
“These things don’t suck blood, they just coat their hat with it and walk around looking stupid.” The volume of her voice suggested that the goblin could understand English, and also that she was taunting it.
I blew out a breath, trying for calm, and thought about changing locations. It could hear me. It knew where I was. If it could somehow move without making a sound, it must be zeroing in on my location, choosing the weaker of the two magical workers in the area.
I was a powerful natural mage, a rarity in the magical world, and yet I was still more mundane than the other magical worker trying to look through the bushes like a goof. If I didn’t have bad luck, I’d have no luck at all.
“You gotta go find it, or it’ll stalk you and take you out from behind,” Reagan yelled over.
“I know, I know.” I took a deep breath, steeled my courage for the shock of a nasty goblin jumping out at me, which would happen in some shape or form (it always did), and carefully stepped away from the shelter of the tree. The thing’s vile magic twisted around me, cringing from the elements gathered above my head.
With extreme effort, I boosted the wholesomeness and positivity of my mood, the effect drifting into the flowing, swirling energy in my magical bubble. Immediately, the goblin’s magic pulled back even more, its corrosive effects diminished.